Homily: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A
It seems to me that, in today’s culture, ideas and ideals are more important than persons. What I mean by that is this: that protecting and respecting the dignity of the human person has taken a lower place in our society than protecting and respecting an idea or ideal. The most explicit case in point, and appropriate to use on this Respect Life Sunday, is the legality of abortion on demand. Now I am speaking here about the attitude that has led to abortion’s legal protection, not the attitudes of individual mothers who have chosen abortion for whatever reason; and the attitude is that an individual’s right to choose whether or not she will carry the new life within her to term is more important than respecting the inherent dignity of the life of the child within her. Many ignore this conflict by claiming that the fetus, still in the womb, has not yet gained any dignity that needs to be respected; but yet there are still others—and increasingly so, it seems—who recognize that the fetus does have a certain dignity deserving respect and who yet still claim that this dignity is subordinate to the ideal that the mother of this child has the right to choose either to carry this child to term or to terminate her pregnancy through abortion.
Hopefully, most of us here identify as “pro-life” and can nod our heads in agreement that, particularly in this case, this notion that the idea or ideal is more important than the person is wrong and destructive. I want to warn us, however, that there is a danger that we on this side of the issue can allow ourselves to put the idea or ideal ahead of the person, as well. In other words, we can become so focused on condemning the idea of abortion that we lose sight of the real human persons involved. Must we speak strongly against these acts that destroy innocent human lives, and must we work tirelessly to limit and eliminate legal protections for these acts? Yes, absolutely. But never at the expense of the dignity of the persons involved: persons whose concrete circumstances we almost certainly do not understand fully. This, I believe, is where our Scriptures today come into play, because I think that they hold this tension between upholding an ideal, while yet acknowledging and respecting the human person.
In our first reading, we heard God, through the prophet Ezekiel, correcting the people who thought that God’s ways of justice were unfair. If we looked at the greater context of this reading we’d see that what God is correcting is a fatalist attitude among the people that the sins of one generation became the destiny of the next and that this was God’s doing. Thus God corrects them by saying, “no, if one man sins and he dies without repenting, then he shall die because of the sins he committed; but if he converts before he dies, he will live because of the virtuous acts that he performed: all of this without regard to the virtues or sins of the generation before him.” In a sense, God is saying that, “yes, there are sins for which one can be condemned to everlasting death and each one must take care to know what those are and to avoid them or, at least, to repent for having committed them.” In the context of our reflection, it’s a confirmation that, yes, ideas and ideals are extremely important.
Then, in the second reading, we heard Saint Paul reminding us, through his letter to the Philippians, that we must empty ourselves for the good of others. There he says, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.” In other words—and in the context of our reflection—I think that we can see him saying, “Don’t let your ideals get ahead of the person.” Saint Paul then goes on to express how Jesus emptied himself… and why?—for the good of each and every person—and that it was precisely because of this that he is now exalted on high. Jesus refused to allow the ideals to become more important than the people he came to save and so he is now honored as Lord over all.
Finally, in the Gospel, we see the tension that we have been describing come together in a concrete situation. There Jesus challenges the chief priests and elders of the people to recognize that they have allowed their ideals to get ahead of their respect and concern for the person. By his parable, Jesus accuses them of placing their ideals above the persons—condemning the tax collectors and prostitutes and excluding them from the community because of it, instead of condemning tax collection and prostitution while reaching out to those committing these evil acts and calling them to conversion. Notice that Jesus does not ignore the ideal—he doesn’t say “Well, they don’t mean to hurt anybody, so don’t give them a hard time”—but he doesn’t allow the ideal to get ahead of the dignity of the personhood possessed by each of these sinners, either. And this, for one very simple reason: that the ideal is meant to elevate our dignity, never to replace it.
My friends, I think that we should be very grateful that this is God’s attitude towards us: to hold up a strong and important ideal that elevates the dignity of our humanity, while walking humbly with us so that, in our freedom, we might choose that ideal for ourselves. Grateful because it is an important reminder that God isn’t holding up some impossible ideal, hoping that we would fail so that he can watch us suffer, but rather that he is encouraging us towards the ideal of our happiness and is ready to help us to achieve it: not for his own good, but for ours alone; and he demonstrated this when he sent his Son, Jesus, to empty himself and become one with us so that we might see that it is possible to become one with him in eternal happiness in heaven.
My friends, I am under no illusion that this tension is something easy to balance in real life. It is an art to hold up the ideal without using it to beat down the person whom it is meant to help; and anyone who has tried it knows that it is an art that we all practice imperfectly, especially when it comes to the concrete circumstances of an individual person’s life. If we want to respect life truly, however, then this is an art that we must practice daily: like when our son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter, decides to move in with their significant other before marriage, or like when our sister or brother, or maybe our favorite aunt or uncle, has an affair and decides to divorce his or her wife / husband, or like when we discover that our neighbor or co-worker immigrated here illegally, or like when our students choose a homecoming king who, more appropriately, should have been elected homecoming queen. These, and countless other situations like them remind us that, when we say that we respect life, it means that we put the person first, and the ideal at the service of that person; because God, who always remembers his mercies, has so treated us.
May God, the author of all life, who gives us the Bread of Life from this altar, strengthen us to empty ourselves for one another; thus raising us all to the fullness of life for which he made us.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN
September 30th & October 1st, 2017